They could have easily filled their later years quietly spending more time with family, traveling or playing golf.
But Skip Hoagland, Rich Bisi and John Dowling don’t fit the typical retirement mold.
Instead, they have chosen high-profile, often-confrontational roles that have garnered praise and admiration from their supporters — and wrath and disgust from their opponents.
Meet Beaufort County’s self-proclaimed watchdogs.
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“I’m not saying I’m a hero, but I’m one of a few guys on this island willing to do what I’m doing,” said Hoagland, founder of Beaufort Watchdog, a local government whistleblower organization that he proudly calls a “champion of citizens.”
Hoagland’s targets in recent years have included officials with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton, and, most recently, the Beaufort County School District.
He has verbally sparred with officials at public meetings and is known for his long email missives to those he believes have done wrong. He also has filed multiple lawsuits — obtaining, for example, an initial favorable court ruling in an open-records case — and has been sued for defamation.
Meanwhile, Bisi and Dowling have focused their attention solely on the school district. Bisi co-founded CARE, shorthand for Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, which formed in response to the ethics scandal involving Superintendent Jeff Moss’ hiring of his wife for a high-paying, district-level position nearly two years ago.
Like Hoagland, Bisi and Dowling are not afraid to share their views at public meetings or via email.
I’m not saying I’m a hero, but I’m one of a few guys on this island willing to do what I’m doing.
Skip Hoagland, longtime government critic
The outspoken critics see themselves as the voice for those who are too busy or too scared to speak out against perceived abuses of power, waste of tax dollars, or the lack of accountability and transparency.
Their opponents — mostly government officials — claim they routinely misstate facts and issues, unnecessarily interfere with the operations of government or other organizations, or engage in personal attacks and threats.
“As an elected official, there’s a climate in the country where it feels more threatening now than it did two years ago,” said Mary Cordray, a member of the Beaufort County Board of Education and its immediate past chairwoman.
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka wonders whether that climate will discourage people from running for public office in the future.
“We’re in a world today of anger, and it’s dwindling down to a local level,” she said.
Just this month, the chamber’s finance chief, Raymond Deal, angrily confronted Hoagland at the Hilton Head town hall, telling him, “You don’t know who you are f---ing with.” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and several of his deputies responded to the scene. Hoagland filed a police report alleging he was threatened, though no charges were brought in the June 6 incident.
As an elected official, there’s a climate in the country where it feels more threatening now than it did two years ago.
Mary Cordray, Beaufort County Board of Education member
Some local officials declined interview requests by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette for this story, citing pending litigation or fear of causing future rifts, though several gave emailed statements about their most vocal critics.
Regarding Hoagland, Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head chamber, wrote:
“The public’s role and voice in government is vital to our democracy, unfortunately Hoagland has in many ways, hijacked that process and made a spectacle of himself in the process with his malicious personal attacks and threats against town officials and others and his false accusations that have been directed at our chamber and hundreds of others across the country.”
Moss had no problem responding to what he describes as accusations by CARE.
“CARE has yet to propose a constructive program or concept that will help our students or our schools,” he said in a prepared statement.
He also said, “We’ve had nearly two years of constant, caustic criticism, and nearly two years of baseless or misleading claims that don’t reflect the concerns and issues we hear from parents or community members.”
For now, though, Hoagland, Bisi and Dowling remain undaunted in their quests. Dowling, for example, who describes himself as a “quote guy,” includes the following at the bottom of every email he sends:
"If not us, who? If not now, when?" – John F. Kennedy
Increased scrutiny by these watchdogs have brought to the public’s attention issues that likely would have been ignored.
Dowling, 70, is the most recent addition to the activist circuit. He started regularly attending Beaufort County school board meetings in December after his wife, a former district employee, retired in June 2016.
Before moving to Sun City in 2003, Dowling was a three-term school board member in a Massachusetts school district. He also trained school boards for three years as a staffer with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
That’s where, Dowling said, his focus on school board policy originated.
Rich Bisi, also 70, said he spends about 20 hours a week going to board meetings, doing research and sending emails on behalf of CARE, which has an active Facebook following. He and his wife, Fran, moved to Hilton Head Island in 2003. He has a public relations background; she in medical oncology.
CARE has recently put the district’s monthly spending reports under scrutiny after noticing several discrepancies.
Increased scrutiny by these watchdogs have brought to the public’s attention issues that likely would have been ignored.
Fran Bisi penned a series of probing emails to Moss and the board about the reports, which detail district checks over $100 as well as the district’s credit-card transactions. All school districts are required to post this information to their websites to comply with a state budget proviso.
She found months of records missing from the district’s website and reports with the wrong dates. She pointed out, for example, that the January 2013 and January 2014 spending reports were identical except for the headline dates.
The district made a “few technical revisions,” but “no financial data were altered,” district spokesman Jim Foster told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in an email response.
As for Hoagland, 69, who is a Florida resident but maintains Beaufort County ties, his biggest legal accomplishment to date is a 2016 Beaufort Court Circuit Court ruling that said the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce is subject to the state Freedom of Information Act.
Hoagland sued the chamber after being denied an FOIA request, arguing the chamber is a public body because it receives accommodation tax revenues from the towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton and from Beaufort County to market the area to prospective tourists.
He alleges the chamber is using the money to pay high salaries for its employees, including president Bill Miles – a frequent subject of Hoagland’s mass emails – and other uses that are not tourism-related.
The chamber denies the allegations and contends it is not a public entity. It appealed the lower court ruling to the S.C. Supreme Court, where the case is pending.
With five lawsuits currently pending, Hoagland said he’s spent more than $250,000 in legal and court fees over the last several years. He founded a media and internet domain-name business, which owned websites such as Hiltonhead.com and Savannah.com, though he said his family now owns the business since he retired in 2012.
“He has a lot of good points,” Hilton Head town council member John McCann said of Hoagland when contacted recently.
McCann declined, though, to elaborate, citing the town’s ongoing litigation with Hoagland.
To some elected officials, the critics’ tactics can quickly turn ugly, prompting security concerns.
In a December 2015 lawsuit, town council member Kim Likins alleged Hoagland defamed her by making statements to her bosses that she was unfit to serve in her job as director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island. According to her suit, Hoagland made the statements following her vote in favor of a contract with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce — a contract Hoagland has publicly criticized. Likins was granted a temporary restraining order against Hoagland in December 2015 that is still in place.
We’re in a world today of anger and it’s dwindling down to a local level.
Lisa Sulka, Bluffton mayor
In April of this year, Hoagland filed a $10 million lawsuit against the town, contending the town was illegally funding Likins’ ongoing private suit against him. The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported then that the town had paid a total of nearly $140,000 to two law firms representing Likins.
Police presence has become a frequent fixture at public meetings in recent years, though officials say the increased security isn’t the result of any particular individuals.
In January 2016, Bluffton police officers began checking bags, backpacks and purses and wielding metal-detecting wands — one month after Hoagland had a verbal showdown with Sulka that resulted in his removal from the meeting. A sheriff’s deputy has been stationed at Hilton Head Island Town Council meetings for about the same time.
January 2016 Bluffton Police Department officers start conducting security searches.
January 2016 Beaufort County sheriff’s officers start attending Hilton Head Island Town Council meetings.
May 2017 Beaufort County sheriff’s deputies start attending Beaufort County Board of Education meetings.
The same security measures could become commonplace at Beaufort County Board of Education meetings following an incident earlier this school year.
After an April 22 school board work session adjourned, Dowling walked up to board member Cordray and asked to talk. What followed was a heated verbal confrontation that ended with a district official escorting Dowling out of the building.
“I don’t think they realize they can go too far,” Cordray told the newspapers, adding she is apprehensive before board meetings and that, when available, her husband accompanies her to and from meetings.
Three weeks after the incident with Dowling, sheriff’s deputies began attending school board meetings. The district’s security contract with the Sheriff’s Office began in May and extends through August, said department spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage.
The school district pays deputies $42.50 an hour to attend the meetings, according to district spokesman Foster.
‘Wearing on us’
Some local officials likely aren’t thrilled when Hoagland, Rich Bisi or Dowling show up at their meetings.
At one point, Hoagland was temporarily banned from speaking at Hilton Head Island Town Council meetings.
“When some individuals come before us on repeated occasions, they have the right to do that and I respect that, but it really is wearing on (us),” said Hilton Head town council member Bill Harkins.
Officials also say the overwhelming amount of emails and FOIA requests from activists can hinder day-to-day operations of their agencies.
Since Jan. 1, the school district has received 36 FOIAs from Hoagland, the Bisis and Dowling, district spokesman Foster said.
An email Hoagland sent earlier this week to 37 people included 61 website links of suggested reading on government corruption. Often, more than 50 people are copied to his messages, including staff at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
“These particular folks often don’t understand the things they’re asking about, and when we offer truthful and accurate responses, they reject them,” Foster told the newspapers. “On top of that, the level of their sarcasm and innuendo can be pretty striking.”
In a recent email, Fran Bisi described school board members and Moss as a “confederacy of dunces.”
“Diplomacy isn’t my style,” she told the newspapers.
At a school board meeting last month, board member Earl Campbell admitted to deleting some emails without reading them.
“I don’t mind receiving emails, but please ... don’t send me no email because you’re negative,” he said. “If you’re not talking about students, I delete it.”
School board critics have since resorted to including “student” or “children” in email subject lines to increase their chances of the message being read, according to the barrage of back-and-forth email exchanges.
Controlling the message
Earlier this year, the school district added another person, a media production coordinator, to its communication team to promote what officials say are less-publicized aspects of the district.
“We do not do enough to put to bed those naysayers, folks that don’t want to speak positively about the things that are positively occurring in our schools,” Moss told board members at an April 4 meeting.
The town of Hilton Head is considering hiring an on-staff communications officer, in part to counter critics.
“Sometimes alternative messages are being conveyed by other parties,” Mayor David Bennett said at a town council meeting last month.
Email newsletters are another popular mechanism for elected officials to share their views. More than 5,000 north Hilton Head constituents subscribe to McCann’s newsletter, while roughly 10,000 sign up for Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling’s weekly recaps.
But activists such as Hoagland, Rich Bisi and Dowling don’t appear to be going away any time soon.
“They’ll hope we’ll burn out and go away, said Dowling.